One of the commonly held definitions of the phrase “public servant” is widely shared and easily understood: a person who has been elected, or appointed, to a governmental or representative office, whose responsibility it is to advance the cause of the better welfare of the general public, i.e., the public servant’s fellow citizens.
Regretfully, however, polls now show that many Americans have come to believe that the notion of “government of, by and for the people” is no longer anything more than a quaint and outdated sophistry from times long since passed that is no longer relevant in our modern political life. Nowhere else is this phenomenon seen as clearly as it is in the current attitudes of a vast majority of Americans toward the United States Congress. Polling shows, on a consistent basis, the belief of most citizens that Congress exists, in its modern incarnation, not for public service but rather for self service. Sadly, during these stressful times of government shutdown, Americans, in vast numbers, say they feel government no longer exists for the purpose of the defense and welfare of those who have installed it but rather that many in government are interested only in the defense and welfare of the fortunes they have accumulated during their years of “public service.”
Perhaps as we elect tomorrow’s officeholders, we should require of them a sort of Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. When members of Congress involve themselves in the subterfuge and opaqueness we have witnessed over the recent term, is it any wonder that approval ratings of the Congress are historically low? What does this do to America’s image and reputation, home and abroad? What does this say to young Americans who are desperately attempting to gain a foothold in their lives, and to build their future? Is there a good future in a country that appears, at times, to be devoid of rational leadership?
Where is “government by the people” when a majority of the nation’s citizens support universal background checks on weapons purchases and yet, despite tragedy after tragedy, nothing is done? This failure to respond to the will of the majority – acting in a moral cause – undermines the credibility, authority and legacy of Congress, a body elected to do the people’s business and to represent the wishes of its constituents from coast to coast. As Congress is infiltrated by the scoundrels of pure self service, Americans wait, watch, wring their hands and hope that somehow leaders will emerge to walk us out of this darkness.
A sad consequence of the debacle in Washington is that the disrespect Americans increasingly feel toward their national institutions cannot but also taint the way they feel about their state and local leaders. When citizens begin to think that “all politics is rotten” at the national level, they can’t help thinking the odor of rot is closer to home, too.
Yet during these trying and challenging times that call into question the collective character of our body politic, I insist that my time in political office, as well as during my years serving as a police office, I have found the vast majority of those I have encountered in both arenas to truly personify the ideal of the “public servant.” Unfairly, however, and as a result of the generalized angst of the nation resulting from the ongoing failure of our federal leaders, I find that many of our local officials are colored by the public with the same brush with which they paint their portrait of Washington. As a result, many fine local public servants, men and women of character, are dismissed out of hand by citizens who have come to denigrate all politicians for the extreme actions of a radical few, such as those audacious enough to hold an entire nation hostage in an attempt to secure the goals that they, and only then, see as rational and obtainable.
When I look to Congress and see that the vanity of a very few is putting at risk the well-being of women and children, veterans and our other most needy citizens, my concern grows. Despite all this, I remain optimistic. America has suffered greater trials than these and I choose to believe that the greater good of our collective character will win the day and will see us through these dark, trying moments in our history.
If all our public servants could see beyond their own agendas, if all could place their hands on deck and grab an oar and row together, this great nation might be returned to the original course of her principles of justice and opportunity for all. If such a transformation could take place, we might once again secure for all the great promise that has always been America.
Raymond A. Hull is the Democratic State Representative from District 6, Providence and North Providence. Serving his second term, he is a member of the House Committee on Finance and House Committee